Global Politics

What It's Like to Pilot Drones

Earlier this week, Britain's Prince Harry made headlines when he called his job firing weapons from a helicopter in Afghanistan a "joy."

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"I'm one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think I'm probably quite useful," he said.

Video games are often mentioned when talking about drone pilots, too.

So what is it really like to fly one of the multi-million dollar machines?

To find out, the BBC recently spoke with former drone pilot Dave Cummins.

He originally flew traditional military aircraft in Britain's Royal Air Force – but switched to drones a few years ago.

For a time, Cummins was stationed here in the US, at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas.

He flew drones in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cummins remembers driving from his house in Las Vegas to "the Box" – the place at the base where he and his two-man crew flew missions.

"It's a good drive that one hour," Cummins said. "It takes you from your house, the family, the dishes, the cleaning of the car. And it gives you time to adjust to where you're effectively going to be entering a ground control station in a combat zone."

Cummins said he could spend up to 12 straight hours flying, once he entered "the Box."

"It's fairly spacious, unlike most aircraft," he said. "But we try to give the atmosphere of the aircraft. It's dimmed, it's dark. It has the normal running noises of computers in the background, and lots and lots of computer screens. The chat we try to keep to a minimal, like in any aircraft. You're concentrating on the operation."

Cummins told the BBC that it's a strange feeling being so far removed from the action.

But he rejects the idea that flying an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is akin to playing a video game.

"In one sense, I equate a UAV to a sniper who is sitting two kilometers away on the hilltop," he said. "We're involved in the battle, we're part of the battle, and I think in Afghanistan in particular, the threat to our friendlies, the IEDs – the remote detonations – meant that al-Qaeda had an unfair advantage if you like. And I think that unmanned systems went someway toward evening up that problem."

Dave Cummins now works for a company working on civilian applications for drones.

He expects it to be a huge growth market in coming years.

The possibilities for drones, it seems, are endless.